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Nuclear Energy Facilities Keep Pace With Arctic Chill

Jan. 7, 2014—Nuclear energy facilities have been unfazed by the huge mass of Arctic air that is bringing record cold to much of the country. The plants are running at nearly 100 percent of capacity, helping meet near-record wintertime demand for electricity.

The high demand has led to a surge in wholesale electricity prices, as some non-nuclear plants had to drop off the grid due to low gas pipeline supplies and cold-related mechanical failures.

No nuclear energy facility has reported unusual issues during the cold snap, due in part to Nuclear Regulatory Commission and plant procedures to ensure continued safe operations in extreme weather conditions.

The intense cold has increased electricity demand considerably throughout the country. Texas grid operator ERCOT reported that demand for electricity Monday reached just short of its record winter level. The Tennessee Valley Authority said it reached a peak power demand Tuesday morning that was just shy of its winter high.

Wholesale power prices spiked with the high demand, reaching a price cap of $5,000 per megawatt-hour in Texas and above $1,500 per megawatt-hour at PJM, the grid operator that covers the mid-Atlantic region and parts of the Midwest. More typical wholesale prices for these segments of the grid are between $30 and $50 per megawatt-hour.

Regardless, the nuclear fleet kept up with the demand, maintaining more than 97 percent operating capacity Saturday through Monday, dropping slightly to just under 95 percent Tuesday.

An NRC blog post identifies two periods when nuclear energy facilities gird themselves against unusual cold, one to assure plant readiness before extreme weather and the other to verify readiness during an event. NRC resident inspectors typically check a plant for cold-weather vulnerabilities at the start of the season and then, during an episode of extreme cold, increase the frequency of inspections of equipment that could be susceptible to sustained subfreezing temperatures.